On June 15, President Obama dropped a large boulder into a roiled political pond with the announcement that, under his executive authority, the Department of Homeland Security will cease deporting certain undocumented people under the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. as minors under the age of 16. Political motivations aside, what does the announcement mean?
“The dilemma facing these young people has long evoked a certain sympathy,” says Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations with the American Nursery & landscape Association. “Many have little or no recollection of their country of birth, they have come of age in the United States, and they have their whole lives ahead of them.”
The original DREAM Act legislation, which sought to address this challenge, once had significant bipartisan support with strong backing of the likes of Utah’s senior Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. But that was during a gentler era before the political discourse around immigration reform deteriorated. In recent weeks, freshman Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) revived the debate with his announced intention to pursue legislation less ambitious than the DREAM Act, but Rubio had yet to unveil a bill. By Rubio’s own admission, Obama’s move ends his effort, at least for now.
The Administration’s new policy really is a sort of stop-gap measure rather than a lasting resolution of the issue. Eligible and otherwise law-abiding young people can seek a waiver from deportation in the form of a two-year “deferred departure” status, with the possibility of authorization to work. The status may be able to be extended beyond two years. Yet, the policy change could be blocked by the courts, or a new administration might reverse it, or Congress might act and take a different direction. Indeed, a more lasting and complete solution will take an act of Congress.
Some people now working in the green industry under false documents may be eligible, but should they rush to the nearest Homeland Security office and admit their status? Not so fast, say many advisors. Better to let those who are already in deportation proceedings go first, and learn from their experience. History has shown such policy changes are often unevenly applied, in addition to being subject to possible reversal.
As to whether the new policy will spur more illegal immigration, it may be a factor, but a small one. Other factors limiting illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America include our anemic economy, the security situation in Mexican border areas, and enhanced enforcement. Market forces, though, have probably had the greatest impact on peoples’ decisions to come, or stay, or return, than any other factor. Mexican migration is now said to be “net-zero” or even negative, and it’s worth noting that Mexico’s fertility rate has dropped to 2.2, just a fraction above our own. News recently broke that more Asians than Hispanics are now immigrating to the U.S.
Will Obama’s move help him at the polls? Voter turnout will be the wild card. Will the action spur, or stifle, renewed efforts toward broader immigration reform? That is also unclear. Rubio’s recent efforts notwithstanding, there is no sign that any Republican is actually willing to work across the aisle on a reform plan at least until after the November elections.
Continued high unemployment and economic anxieties will be major barriers to truly comprehensive reform of immigration policy anytime soon, though two other areas of need stand out besides the young people. One is the need to expand opportunities for highly educated science, technology, engineering, and math graduates who have been educated here to stay and innovate here and contribute to the high end of our economy. The other is the need for solutions for agricultural workers who are not seen by most as competing for jobs Americans will seek and do. Worsening shortages of farm workers are creating pressure to do something.
There is no clear path to achieving either right now given the level of dysfunction in our politics, but for agriculture, the nation would benefit from a way for experienced workers to enter into a legal working status, and, better legal paths for future workers on a temporary basis are part of the answer. The realization is growing that growers and producers need something other than the flawed H-2A program structure. What’s needed is a modern, flexible, and market-based program solution.
Filed under: H-2A